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Green Sky Thinking: Better Bankside's Urban Forest

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Greening Southwark’s public realm

Hosted by Valerie Beirne, urban forest manager at Better Bankside, this Green Sky Thinking event focused on ‘the ecology of regeneration’ and included a brief presentation at Better Bankside’s Great Guildford Street offices followed by a walking tour around current projects. Bankside Urban Forest, which has been running for 5 years, is a long term strategy for enhancing Bankside’s public realm. It is a partnership project to make Bankside, a mixed neighbourhood of 6,000 residents, 60,000 employees and 6million annual visitors, a better place to live, work and visit by offering high quality improvements to the public realm, ranging from small tree planting to temporary projects such as the Urban Physics Garden and permanent improvements like those to Flat Iron Square and Redcross Way. Our group of eight visited Heather and Ivan Morison’s Skirt of the Black MouthAdams + Sutherland’s, White Heart, improvements in Great Suffolk Street, Mint Street Park, Red Cross Way and Flat Iron Square. Better Bankside coordinate the partnership on behalf of a number of local agencies including Southwark Council, the Architecture Foundation, Tate Modern, Cross River Partnership and Greater London Authority (Design for London).


Proposals in Southwark

The walking tour began in Sumner Street with Skirt of the Black Mouth, a timber installation designed by Heather and Ivan Morison, which reclaims public space from the Tate Modern construction site by challenging the traditional hoarding as one approaches the museum from the back. Just in front, and as part of Neo Bankside development between Southwark Street and Holland Street, the landscape has created a series of gardens and pedestrian links between these two streets while also increasing biodiversity.


Skirt of the Black Mouth by Heather and Ivan Morison


Skirt of the Black Mouth by Heather and Ivan Morison

Our next stop was Adams + Sutherland’s White Heart at the junction of Great Suffolk Street and Dolben Street. This project, which started on site in September, is intended to reinforce Great Suffolk Street’s identity by proposing new social spaces with planting for people to sit and enjoy the city. When completed in November, it will incorporate a large new tree as its focal point as well as miscellaneous pavement repairs. Valerie explained that the consultation process enabled local residents to understand and comment on the proposals which were then adjusted to reflect their input.


White Heart, a new public area by Adams + Sutherland

Main challenges in Great Suffolk Street:

  • Pavements’ quality in poor conditions
  • Redundant crossovers and fragmented pavements difficult for disabled people
  • Pavements vary in width
  • Large amount of pedestrian traffic
  • Vehicle traffic is low volume and generally calm; however, there are a number of areas where drivers tend to speed up
  • Pedestrians tend to cross the street informally. Safety needs to be improved

Further along  Great Suffolk Street, a Victorian viaduct is being transformed by Light at the End of the Tunnel, a project to transform the railway viaducts from Vauxhall to Bermondsey in order to create job opportunities and promote investment in this part of Southwark. According to Valerie, when the project began in 2002, most of the arcades were dark and ‘forbidding to pedestrians’. A couple of blocks further south from the tunnel, another ‘pocket park’ pops-up. Located next to a football field, it will add biodiversity to Great Suffolk Street.


Great Suffolk Street Consultation Event


‘Light at the End of the Tunnel’, designed to be a solution for improving the economy in Southwark


Furry Arch (Witherford Watson Mann Architects), a proposal for greening a rail arch

The walk continues until we reach Mint Street Park, an open space in Marshalsea Road which had been a misused and ‘dodgy’ place for drug consumption in the 70s. Since 2000, it has been gradually improved and looked after by local charity Bankside Open Spaces Trust. Nestworks, designed by 51% Studio, designed to be used by small birds to increase biodiversity, are being currently monitored to measure how often birds use them.


Mint Street Park


Mint Street Park – ‘Nestworks’ homes for birds by 51% Architects

Valerie then guided us on to Redcross Way, the improvements here were launched in 2010 and funded by Transport for London, as part of their Key Walking Routes initiative. The project links open spaces in the neighbourhood while enabling streets to become more enjoyable and safe for pedestrians. The pavements are wider compared to the rest of the neighbourhood and cycling is encouraged by provision of cycle parking along with 20 new trees.


Redcross Way


Redcross Way proposal


Redcross Way proposal

The walk ended below the railway viaduct at Flat Iron Square. It used to be a street but was closed in 2011 into create a new ‘place of exchange’ within Bankside Urban Forest. With more room for pedestrians, and linking the Island Café to the existing parade of shops, the square is set to get a new green roof designed by Witherford Watson Mann Architects and the Green Roof Consultancy which is currently on site. Since the new space opened in 2011, a range of creative activities have been hosted in the square, including Union Press a temporary commission by public works in June 2012 and more recently a mural by Fiona Banner on the north wall of the square as part of the Merge Festival 2012.


Flat Iron Square


Flat Iron Square, Witherford Watson Mann Architects

All in all, this series of thoughtful micro-interventions in the public realm are slowly transforming this part of Bankside into a more welcoming and pedestrian-friendly place. One of the things that caught my attention was the everpresent Shard, which could always be glimpsed betwixt and between the buildings.

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